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The union representing British Columbia's civil servants wants to open liquor stores for business on Sunday – something the government has until now largely resisted. But in the new round of public-sector contract talks just getting under way, the province has opened the door to the proposal as a method of financing higher wages for government workers.

"Let people decide whether they want to buy their liquor on a Sunday," said Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union. "The market should decide."

Just a handful of the province's 197 government liquor stores open on Sundays, while almost 700 private retailers are allowed to sell seven days a week.

Changing the government liquor-store hours is part of the package tabled Tuesday by the BCGEU in the opening round of public-sector bargaining. The BCGEU is the first union to begin talks under the government's new bargaining mandate, but over the next few months, most of the province's 300,000 public-sector workers will be negotiating a new contract.

This round of talks marks the end of the government's two-year, "net zero" bargaining mandate but if anything, the economic outlook is worse now than it was when the government froze wages.

Now the province is holding out the prospect of wage increases – but only if savings or increased revenue can be found somewhere within the workplace.

B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said Tuesday there will be no additional dollars available for public-sector wages – the province is struggling to return to a balanced budget by 2013. "But we recognize that across the spectrum, there are opportunities to realize real savings that can be applied to modest wage increases for our public sector," he said.

It's an unprecedented approach to bargaining in B.C. and presents unique challenges.

The BCGEU master agreement typically sets the tone for the rest of the public service, but this round may be different. Some sectors of government may not be able to find new money or savings, creating an uneven landscape for pay raises among different groups of public workers. Workers at a Crown corporation will likely have greater opportunities for wage gains than those in the social-services sector, for example.

The government is expected to cap any possible wage increases so that no one group will receive significant raises.

But for Mr. Walker, it's an opportunity not to be missed.

"Our expectations are that a pay raise will be available for our members, after two years of zeros," he said in an interview shortly before heading into the first meeting. Government employers are under pressure to arrive at a plan to find money for wage increases within their sectors, but unions are invited to produce their own suggestions.

"We'd be damn fools not to look at that," Mr. Walker said. "So away we go."

The province has laid down some ground rules: Wage increases cannot be funded through cuts to services or through higher fees. And ministries and agencies of government have to meet their budget targets before offering up cash for compensation.

Labour costs make up more than half of the province's entire budget and a one-per-cent increase in wages across the board would cost about $237-million a year.